Friday, October 8, 2010

Time to Believe

I've been over all the numbers.  I have watched every second of Michigan's season and the better part of three games that Michigan State has played.  I have read no less than a half dozen full fledge game previews and listened to the predictions of friends on both sides of the rivalry.  I am now at data overload.

And what do I know after all of this?  Nothing, really.  But that's why they play the game.

I am done with all the rational analysis.  I don't need to hear another iteration of the "Michigan defense FAIL" meme.  I have watched the games and seen the defense give up yard after painful yard to quick passes.  Furthermore I have exhausted my ways of describing Denard Robinson's brilliance (until the next jaw dropping performance).

Do you want to bet against him?
The fact is after all I have read and analyzed, I am less certain about this game than I was before the season.  I could see it play out in as many as 1000 different ways.  I can't even escape this constant speculation in sleep.  I have had three dreams this week involving the game, all of them being wildly different in content (Hopefully the 52-14 blowout was more of a premonition.  Talk about a dream!).

However, in this utter exhaustion I have come to the realization that I simply need to let go.  In depth statistical breakdowns of MSU's passing game or Michigan's epic lack of a kicking game can only go so far.  In the end, I have to defer to the guys who are down on the field Saturday.

Does anyone think Denard Robinson is worried that MSU will be able to score 40 points on our defense?  Does anyone think JT Floyd or James Rogers are going to bow down to the Spartan receivers and ask them to take it easy on the Wolverine secondary?  Do you think Rich Rodriguez isn't confident that his team can win if they execute?  No.  This offense genuinely believes that it can score every time it gets the ball, and that every one of our skill position players is a threat to score at any time.  This defense fully believes that with the game on the line that it can get the stop necessary, even if they have to play 40 minutes in a game (say what you want about last week's effort, but the defense stepped up when the offense went cold in the 4th).  Even the special teams units believe that if called on they will be able to execute exactly as planned.  This team believes it can win.  We owe it to them to believe too.

You can hedge your bets that Michigan State's offense is too much to contain for an over matched defense, or that Michigan won't be able to match the superhuman numbers on offense against a better defense.  Say MSU wins 38-35 or 31-28.  You won't be the first person to bet against Denard Robinson and crew this year, and you won't be the last.


With that being said, there are a few themes that have yet to be discussed going into this weekend.  I'll try to delve a little deeper into a few factors that could decide the game.

  • If I had to guess MSU's offensive strategy coming in to this game, I would bet it would be much like last year:  Establish the run, eat up the clock, and limit Michigan's possessions.  State did a very good job of this last year holding the ball for almost 40 minutes* and only giving the Wolverines eleven possessions in regulation (including only three in the first half).  If Michigan State can string together a series of 10 play drives, that will cut the total amount of possessions for the Wolverines, increasing the odds that Michigan State can get stops (If Michigan only gets eight possessions they can't afford as many mistakes as if they get twelve).  This seems like a sound strategy until you look at some of the numbers.  Michigan State, for all it's offensive balance and weak schedule, hasn't been a great team on 3rd down this year.  They currently sit at 23 conversions in 62 attempts for 37% efficiency.  Standard disclaimers apply: Michigan's defense is bad   but so is FAU's (1 of 7), WMU's (3 of 11), and North Colorado's (4 of 9).  The upshot of this for MSU fans is that their team did a better job last game converting 50% against Wisconsin (9 of 18).  If Michigan's defense can put the MSU offense in a few challenging third and long situations, the Wolverines have a chance to get the ball back and stop the long drives that MSU is depending on to minimize the effect of the Michigan offense on the game.
* (For all you "T.O.P. doesn't matter against the Michigan offense" people, I agree in principle, but in a case like this I have to say you are wrong.  Forty minutes of possession time for Michigan State and Indiana are completely different.  Remember last year's 17 play drive that took up 10 minutes of gametime?  Indiana's longest drives took just under six minutes.  Michigan State is the kind of balanced offense that can use T.O.P. to their advantage.)
  • The next underrated factor is a little bit of statistical inflation.  First, Michigan's pass defense is widely cited as worst in the nation.  Based on yardage, this is true, and it is ugly.  Three hundred and seven yards a game is quite the eyesore.  However, it is also slightly misleading.  That isn't to say this pass defense is good, but rather not as bad as it looks.  That 307 ypg average is weighed down by 480 yards against Indiana.  No one wants to give up that kind of yardage, but it came on 64 passing attempts!  Ben Chappell had to complete 45 passes to rack up that many yards, and it was good for 7.5 ypa.  Now these numbers aren't great, but Indiana had all day to try and score because of the stunning efficiency of the Wolverine offense.  Add in the safety gaffes against ND and you have two abnormally high levels of yardage that skew the stats upward.  In Pass Efficency Defense, Michigan ranks 79th in the country.  Not great, but not "sky is falling" level either.  Coincidentally, Wisconsin ranks 78th, which doesn't include a Chappell-bombing.  They gave up 269 yards and three touchdowns to MSU last weekend, but got back 2 interceptions.  Michigan will still struggle to contain the Spartan passing attack, but hope certainly isn't lost.
  • Now, for a bit of statistical deflation.  Michigan State comes into the game ranked 20th in rushing defense, allowing only 101 yards per game at 3.2 ypc.  This comes after facing the rushing juggernauts of FAU (72 ypg at 2.3 ypc good for 116th in the country), WMU (76 ypg at 2.3 ypc, good for 114th in the country), and Northern Colorado (I'm not looking it up, FCS and all).  Against Notre Dame and Wisconsin they also gave up around 5 ypc.  Claims of Michigan State being a dominant rush defense capable of stopping Michigan are premature.  While Michigan still has to prove it's mettle offensively against a top flight defense, this doesn't seem to be the week.
When it all comes down to it in a game that grades out this even, it comes down to two things:  who has the best player and who wants it more.  Both of these are advantages for Michigan, and I believe that the defense does enough to slow the Michigan State offense and give the Wolverines a chance to win.

Finally, my chance to look like an idiot come Saturday:

The Wolverines pull out a nail biter 35-31.


  1. You're not familiar with contractions, are you?

  2. Well, if he went to MSU, I'm surprised he can read.

  3. Just the Kovacs, Ma'amOctober 9, 2010 at 5:27 AM

    I know that TOP is often talked about, but I usually love scoring quickly. There is less of a chance for stuff to go wrong and stall the drive. The goal should be to paint 60 on the board.

  4. There is certainly nothing wrong with scoring quickly, and I think this offense is built to do it and the defense is set up to handle it (they did not look winded in the 4th against Indiana after 80 some plays, a tribute to the summer workouts, Rodriguez, and Barwis). My big worry against teams like MSU and OSU is that they will put up a high TOP number on a low number of plays and drives (a function of running the ball effectively), which will lower the number of possessions we get. We want a shootout. We want 12-15 drives so we can score of 50% of them. State wants a slow game with 8 or 10 drives apiece which gives out offense less room for error. I still think we can win a game where both teams only have the ball eight times, but our offense will have literally no margin for error and will probably need to score on 5 or 6 of the drives to get enough points to outlast MSU, especially if their offense is effective enough to limit us to just eight possessions. It isn't a real revelation to say "we need to stop their long drives", but against a team like MSU it is more important than a team like Indiana.